Soul Economics

"Guanajuato Mummy," photo by Pierre Saslawsky.

Got myself into terrible trouble with Kathleen s mom last week. I insulted her so terribly to her face that she nearly had a nervous breakdown. She called Kathleen after I did it and ranted and wept and dithered for half an hour, and Kathleen called me and questioned me mildly, and I said, well, I don t know, I guess that was out of line. But somehow I didn t feel guilty.

When Kathleen's mom comes to Mexico, she rents a cottage from the governor s mother, her oldest friend in town. Kathleen s mom is old-school society. When Kathleen gets into difficulties because her prestigious employer doesn t pay her for six months and then invents a reason to fire her, her mom bails her out with a three hundred dollar loan and extracts interest in the form of dire predictions and tight-lipped, controlling disapproval. Lots of moms do this. I suppose they think they're being sensible.

But that s not really why I insulted her. A year ago I painted a portrait of Kathleen, as a technical exercise, which turned out rather well. Kathleen s mom, who prides herself on her art collection, saw it, liked it, and asked how much. I told her $250, which seemed to me very reasonable. Kathleen s mom flipped and dithered and said oh, horrible, that s $350 Canadian, oh oh oh, and never mentioned it again.

Kathleen has been helping Julio, her insouciant Cuban friend, flog his work in Toronto. Julio recently arrived in Manhattan in the middle of winter with no money and no coat, having had all his worldly possessions confiscated at the border. She got him a show at a friend gallery; Julio mailed her some drawings and she posted the cash to frame them. Kathleen s mom said, Kathleen is getting a Rude Awakening about how much it costs to frame things.

Now, I know that this has everything to do with Kathleen s background and nothing to do with the merits of struggling artists. My mind understands very well that persons who grew up in the shadow of the Depression have difficulty in seeing money as anything other than something to be hoarded at all costs. They only see that Spending Money Is Bad, never mind how much they have or how little someone else may have or what that other person might do with it. And I think Kathleen s mom is intimidated by me; when she called a couple of weeks ago to pick up the key to Kathleen house, she apologized about nine times for interrupting my work, and refused to stay and chat, even though I hadn t seen her in nine months and invited her in.

But I am learning that no matter how wise and understanding our brains may be, inside each of us is a permanent two-year-old who gets uncontrollably offended and furious at miserly old ladies who insult our artwork and deny us our livelihood. We ignore this two-year-old at our peril. The way my brain decided to deal with Kathleen s mom was to pretend everything was fine, and be nice and polite and sociable. My two-year-old found this solution unacceptable.

When I ran into Kathleen s mom last week at the Internet café, Kathleen had just gotten some bad news; her promised job with a humanitarian organization run by the governor s wife had not been approved, and Kathleen was again, still, unemployed. Kathleen s mom was bummed out about it and, for once, she wasn t blaming Kathleen.

I said, Yes, what a pity, Kathleen is so brilliant and multi-talented and has such specific, unique skills that she would be perfect in that position. Kathleen s mom replied that she thought so, too--but then, she was prejudiced.

And my inner two-year-old, that monstrous, lady-killing demon, leaped unexpectedly out of my throat and said, consolingly, Well, you hide it well.

Some part of my brain which tries to get in synch with incomprehensible people really did think we were being consoling and supportive, but we were evidently wrong. Kathleen told me that her mom was threatening to boycott the Internet café and all of her friends who even knew me. She told me that she has the right to rant about her mom as much as she pleases, but her friends need to keep their mouths shut. I apologized to Kathleen for getting mixed up in affairs that were none of my concern. I was unable to decide what to do about her mom; my two-year-old was still way sore.

But then, on my way to the symphony two evenings later, I fell in with Kathleen s mom, and my Higher Self took over and solved everything. My Higher Self gave a big halloo and a gigantic wave and went running up, exclaiming, I owe you a HUGE apology.

Yes, you do, was the reply.

m lame and horrible and have absolutely no excuse, continued my Higher Self, undaunted. Stephanie has had a difficult month and doesn t know what came over her. She is terribly, terribly sorry and t begin to make up for it. My Higher Self completed this orgy of obsequiousness by tucking her arm around Kathleen s mom s waist and skipping down the street, chatting merrily about the difficulties of taking care of inexperienced houseguests in scary Mexico.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, said Kathleen, later. Good ol Higher Self. Would that she were in control more of the time; maybe she would have been able to do it better from the beginning.

For instance, my Higher Self could have said something like: Hey, look here, Kathleen s mom, I have this beautiful portrait of Kathleen, and I m taking it a bit personally that you haven t bought it. This is a unique opportunity which will never arise again. An original work of art is not a luxury item; it is a spiritual necessity which feeds the soul forever. Having a really excellent painting in your home creates harmonious vibrations which are healing and life-sustaining. Two hundred and fifty dollars is nothing to pay for this, less than you would spend on a weekend in Manhattan. And while it s so little to you, I would in fact be able to live off it for a month, and create that many more life-sustaining pieces of art which the world so desperately needs.

I ended up giving the portrait to Kathleen when she moved back to Canada for good, defeated by the Mexican economy. Mexico is a great place for spending money, but a lousy place for earning it. I would have given it to her sooner, except that I have noticed that people frequently only appreciate what they pay for, and I want all my paintings to have good homes.

I believe in putting your money where your soul is. Money is only energy; it either flows or it stagnates. A person who loves art should buy art, as well as making it and looking at it and talking about it. An artist who hangs only his own work on the walls is like a poet who doesn't read poetry: a narcissistic bore. Buying art provides the seeds for the growth of art in the world in general, and one's own life in particular. It doesn't have to be expensive. Living in Mexico has been a real treat for me, because I can afford the art that people are selling--in the last year I've purchased two Julio Mendoza paintings, a Dean Gazelley wood-block print, a Mendez ceramic flying pig, a pastel by a talented student who had a show in the Internet café and needed encouragement, a black Katrina from Oaxaca, a cougar mask, and piles of pots, bowls, baskets and lamps. When I had no money at all I swapped art with friends, and some of those friends became famous. But I would never consider selling their work, so don't bother to ask. Discover someone for yourself.